For most of human history, the question of who would want to destroy the world didn’t much matter. The reason, of course, was that that no individual or group of humans could demolish civilization or cause our extinction. Our ancestors just didn’t have the tools: no amount of spears, arrows, swords, or catapults would have enabled them — even the most bloodthirsty and misanthropic — to have inflicted harm in every corner of the world.
This changed with the invention of the atomic bomb. While scholars often identify 1945 as the year that human self-annihilation became possible, a more accurate date is 1948 or 1949, since this is when the United States stockpiled enough nuclear weapons (about 100) to have initiated a hemisphere-spanning “nuclear winter.” (See this work in progress for why I’m focusing on 100 nuclear weapons as a threshold.) A nuclear winter occurs when soot from burning cities significantly reduces the amount of sunlight reaching Earth’s surface for a period of months or years, thereby causing temperatures to plummet and famines to ensue. Quite unsettlingly, it wasn’t until the 1980s — decades after we had enough nukes to blot out the sun — that the nuclear winter phenomenon was first identified, although lingering questions remain even today.
The U.S. monopoly on world-ending power didn’t last long: by 1953, the Soviet Union had likewise expanded to 100 weapons. Now there were two nations on Earth that could obliterate civilization. But again, this didn’t last very long. The United Kingdom joined the club of potential world-enders around 1962, China around 1971, and France around 1973, with Israel, Pakistan, and India becoming members of this club in the 2010s. Hence, in less than a century, the world went from containing zero actors capable of unilaterally destroying the world to eight.
This is a scary situation. Unfortunately, it’s getting worse — much worse. The reason is that states are no longer the only players in the game. Thanks to new technologies, nonstate actors such as terrorist groups and lone wolves are getting in on the action, too, and they might be a lot more willing than national governments to push the proverbial doomsday button.
My own research suggests that the percentage of people who would push a doomsday button, if it were placed within finger’s reach, is fairly small, but the absolute number is unacceptably high. Even a quick Google search seems to affirm this. Consider the following answers, taken from different online sources, to the question of whether one would destroy the world if one could (quoting typos and all):
“Yes. It is obvious that we gain nothing from living and there is a huge amount of human suffering that I find quite unjustifiable. The complete annihilation of the human race would be the greatest act of compassion ever.” Reddit.com
“Yes, we suck as a human race.” Reddit.com
“Yes. Because you all are assholes. And this is not a joke I would love to push something that ends humanity. I always thought about it and now there is the question about that topic and I am happy to say I want you all dead everyone single one of you fuckers. Please give me the chance to wipe out humanity.” Reddit.com
“My view is that Mankind is a plague… I vote to destroy mankind and let nature start over.” Debate.org
“The human animal is the only evil animal in the animal kingdom. We destroy everything… I email the president weekly and beg him to push the button and stop the madness already.” Debate.org
“In the short time we’ve been on this planet, humans have already destroyed so much. We destroy ecosystems, and kill off entire species of animals… The world would be better off without humans as a whole.” Debate.org
Of course, saying something definitely isn’t the same as doing it. Even so, can we be fully certain that not a single person in the world would attempt to follow through on his or her annihilatory fantasies? One way to approach this question is to look for historical examples of groups or people who both expressed a desire to kill everyone and committed some terrible act or acts of violence. The combination of these two phenomena implies that such people would be willing to act on their omnicidal (meaning killing everyone) impulses and willingly, perhaps even eagerly, push a doomsday button. So are there such examples?
Unfortunately, yes. Lots of them. And they seem to fall into a handful of basic categories.
Consider the disturbing case of Eric Harris, the psychopathic mastermind behind the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. His journal is full of all sorts of genuinely horrifying, ghoulish fantasies. On several occasions, he explicitly mentions his burning desire to extinguish humanity. At one point. he writes: “If you recall your history the Nazis came up with a ‘final solution’ to the Jewish problem. Kill them all. Well, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I say ‘KILL MANKIND’ no one should survive.”
Elsewhere, Harris mused, “I think I would want us to go extinct,” to which he added, “I have a goal to destroy as much as possible… I want to burn the world” and “I just wish I could actually DO this instead of just DREAM about it all.”
When Harris and Dylan Klebold, his partner in crime, perpetrated their massacre in Columbine, they were equipped with garden-variety weapons. Dangerous to be sure, but hardly capable of “burning the world.” Can there be any doubt, though, that if Harris — who was relatively intelligent and liked math and science — had had access to some of the advanced technologies of tomorrow, he would have, when committing suicide, tried to go out with a much bigger bang?
The Columbine massacre had a huge influence on later rampage shooters, some of whom also dreamt of omnicide. For example, in 2007, an 18-year-old Finnish student named Pekka-Eric Auvinen shot several people at his school, which he also tried to burn down. Like Harris, he wrote about “a final solution” as “the death of the entire human race,” and described his massacre as “an operation against humanity with the purpose of killing as many people as possible.” Yet another rampage shooter from Finland, Matti Saari, wrote in his suicide note, “I hate the human race, I hate mankind, I hate the whole world, and I want to kill as many people as possible.”
Then, of course, there was Elliot Rodger, the incel psychopath who killed seven people and injured 14 in the 2014 Isla Vista killings. In a video shot one day before the rampage, he said in no uncertain terms: “I hate all of you. Humanity is a disgusting, wretched, depraved species. If I had it in my power, I would stop at nothing to reduce every single one of you to mountains of skulls and rivers of blood. And rightfully so. You deserve to be annihilated. And I’ll give that to you.”
School shooters and other lone wolves have idiosyncratic motives, such as a misanthropic hatred of humanity, or a desire to retaliate against women for perceived romantic and sexual slights. Together, though, they comprise a relatively cohesive category of omnicidal actors, and a relatively unpredictable one at that.
Another type of omnicidal actor comes in the form of apocalyptic terrorists who believe that to save the world, it must first be destroyed. ISIS, arguably the largest and richest terrorist group in history, is a paradigm case. While some members of ISIS probably didn’t hold apocalyptic beliefs, the leadership most certainly did — and they made strategic decisions based on these beliefs. The man who essentially founded ISIS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, believed that Islam’s version of Armageddon was about to unfold around the small Syrian town of Dabiq. Hence, the name of the group’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq. After the U.S. military killed al-Zarqawi in 2006, leadership of ISIS transferred to Abu Ayyub al-Masri, a fevered apocalypticist who insisted that the Islamic end-of-days messianic figure, the “Mahdi,” was about to appear in Iraq. Like al-Zarqawi, he based his strategy on his apocalyptic belief — and it backfired. He soon met his end at the hands of Western forces.
Both of these individuals really believed that the end was nigh, and that it was their duty to use violence — catastrophic violence, to be more specific — to bring about the apocalypse. ISIS members talked about acquiring nuclear weapons, releasing deadly pathogens, and building dirty bombs. I personally haven’t spoken to a single terrorism scholar who doesn’t think that ISIS would have gleefully pushed a “destroy-the-world” button, especially if Western forces were marching toward Dabiq.
But ISIS is far from the only apocalyptic group. Famously, the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo attempted to trigger Armageddon by releasing sarin in the Tokyo subway in 1995. Here in the U.S., more than a dozen hate groups subscribe to Christian Identity, an apocalyptic worldview that endorses the use of catastrophic violence as a means of triggering a “race war” that will initiate the end of the world. And one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, the Taiping Rebellion, involved an apocalyptic movement called the “Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.” This was led by a man named Hong Xiuquan, who believed that he was the brother of Jesus Christ, “commissioned by the Lord of Heaven to slay the devil-demons (Manchus) whose rule had brought ruin to China.”
A final type of omnicidal actor lingers within the outermost fringe of radical environmentalist, anarcho-primitivist, and Neo-Luddite ideologies. Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, provides an example par excellence. Beginning in 1978, Kaczynski perpetrated numerous domestic terrorist attacks, killing three people and injuring 23 others. A former UC Berkeley mathematics professor and Harvard alumnus, Kaczynski didn’t wish for humanity to go extinct. Rather, he wanted to trigger a global revolution against industrial society, with the ultimate goal of causing its collapse. Kaczynski ultimately didn’t care whether his revolution would cause people to die, since in his utilitarian calculus the ends would justify the means. As Kaczynski wrote in 1995: “This revolution may or may not make use of violence; it may be sudden or it may be a relatively gradual process spanning a few decades. Its object will be to overthrow not governments but the economic and technological basis of the present society.”
In contrast, other actors in this category have explicitly embraced pro-extinction convictions. For example, the Gaia Liberation Front (GLF), an ecoterrorist group, holds as their mission “the total liberation of the Earth, which can be accomplished only through the extinction of the Humans as a species.” In advocating this, they argue that “if any Humans survive, they may start the whole thing over again. Our policy is to take no chances.”
How might they accomplish their omnicidal aims? GLF contends that bioengineering is “the specific technology for doing the job right of annihilating humanity — and it’s something that could be done by just one person with the necessary expertise and access to the necessary equipment.” They continue: “…genetically engineered viruses… have the advantage of attacking only the target species. To complicate the search for a cure or a vaccine, and as insurance against the possibility that some Humans might be immune to a particular virus, several different viruses could be released (with provision being made for the release of a second round after the generals and the politicians had come out of their shelters).”
This parallels an anonymous article in the Earth First! Journal, published in 1989, meaning that this idea has been around for a while: “Contributions are urgently solicited for scientific research on a species specific virus that will eliminate Homo shiticus from the planet. Only an absolutely species specific virus should be set loose. Otherwise it will be just another technological fix. Remember, Equal Rights for All Other Species.”
While the most radical fringe of the environmentalist movement has avoided the limelight in recent years, some experts, such as the terrorism scholar Frances Flannery, expect a resurgence as climate and biodiversity crises worsen. This poses an obvious danger in a world replete with bullets and bombs; but it poses an existential threat in a world of cheap and easy gene editing. Technologies such as gene drives, digital-to-biological converters, and CRISPR-Cas9 are making it increasingly feasible to synthesize designer pathogens that could be far more devastating than anything found in nature.
Are there any solutions to the problems posed by virus-toting omnicidal maniacs? One hard-to-avoid — and completely terrifying — answer is mass surveillance. This could take the form of what the philosopher Jeremy Bentham called a “panopticon,” whereby the state (perhaps run by computer programs designed specifically to govern — a form of government called “algocracy”) monitors every action of its citizens. The obvious danger is that this could collapse into tyrannical totalitarianism, which itself constitutes an existential risk.
Another possibility involves what the science fiction writer, David Brin, dubs the “transparent society.” This would make surveillance egalitarian, so to speak: everyone would be able to see what everyone else is doing all the time, thereby enabling those watched to watch the watchers. Brin doesn’t argue that this is an ideal situation, only that it’s a better situation than one in which the state has all the power. Perhaps a total loss of privacy is the cost of existential security.
Alternatively, I have previously claimed that, in order to reduce the risks posed by malicious agents like those mentioned above, society should prioritize mitigating climate change and ecological destruction. Both phenomena are threat multipliers and threat intensifiers, which means that they’ll introduce new problems while making old problems even worse. Better environmental policies would lower the threat posed by ecoterrorists, whose fundamental complaint — “Humans are stupidly destroying the biosphere” — is scientifically accurate. Such policies would also decrease the number and severity of natural disasters, which could fertilize apocalyptic fervor among religious extremists. As the terrorism scholar Mark Juergensmeyer has remarked, “radical times will breed radical religion,” a hypothesis apparently supported by the rise of ISIS during the Syrian civil war.
Moving forward, people who care about human survival need to think hard not just about the various technologies that will become available, but about the types of actors who might try to use these technologies for catastrophic ill. The future of the human race could quite literally depend on it.